WEST POINT — Turning points. Every team that does – or attempts to — achieve a greater level of success has one. In professional sports, it can be a draft choice or a trade; in college sports, the signing of a top recruit. It can also be a game. One game.
Army plays Notre Dame Saturday. That’s a game. One game.
“It’s definitely something on our mind,” linebacker Stephen Anderson said. “This season there have been a few games where it’s been, ‘This is where you turn the program. This is where you bring it back.’ As far as we’re concerned we brought it back. We got bowl eligibility in, and the pressure of that is off us now. Everyone realizes that this team is for real. Now that we’ve turned the corner, it’s time to step on the accelerator and keep letting people know that we’re not satisfied with six wins. Seven and eight sounds a lot better.”
After 13 straight losing seaons, the Black Knights set that relatively modest goal for this season. Six victories. That would assure them of a break-even season. Done. The annual blood bath against Navy is three weeks away, and winning that game is a goal before the first drop of sweat falls in the first practice. But a victory against the Fighting Irish? At Yankee Stadium? On national TV? Perchance to dream.
“It would first and foremost be that goal to win the next game, but obviously we’re a program that’s trying to say we belong,” head coach Rich Ellerson said. “If we can routinely say Army and Notre Dame in the same sentence and think we’re talking about something that resembles a fair fight that would have meant that we’ve joined the proper company. That would be huge for our self image. There is a generation or two here of football players from back in the day, and that’s what they’ve always expected. That’s the way it was, but it hasn’t been that way recently. We’ve all heard so much about that, it would be a wonderful thing. We slow it down and look at the tape of ourselves and we say, ‘Whoa, we’ve got a ways to go, we’ve got to get a lot better,’ but the fact that we’re on that path and we have an opportunity to step into a venue like this with a good football team, one of the great football programs in America, and see if we can measure up, that’s great stuff.”
Great would be an understatement. But there would almost certainly be more than just the vicarious thrill of one high-profile victory. High-school players want to play for a winner, and those that are intent on playing at one of the three military academies may be swayed by the greater chance to win. Navy has beaten Army eight years in a row, has played in six bowl games in the last seven years, and defeated Notre Dame 35-17 Oct. 23; Air Force has beaten Army 12 of the last 13 years, including a 42-22 slam dunk two weeks ago, and has played in bowl games three straight years. Also, both play far more challenging schedules.
Ellerson said he doesn’t believe “the outcome of a football game should determine that ultimate decision” as to what school to attend, but who’s to say what sways a 17-year-old as he tries to get a grip on his future.
“It truly is a great feeling,” Anderson said. “Ex-Army players that were around and played on the ’96 team [the last with a winning record] have let us know what we truly brought back and there is a sense of pride that goes through the lineage of these teams. It makes you feel so good that you can be a part of something, not just bigger than yourself football-wise, but bigger than yourself history-wise and what it means to so many people overseas and people that have been in your shoes before. It’s something that we want to keep building on. It’s a good feeling that we don’t want to go away.”
And, needless to say a victory over Notre Dame would create some awfully good feelings that wouldn’t go away for quite awhile. So can you give the Black Knights a shot? Well, who would’ve figured the ’69 Mets? Or the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team? Remember Villanova’s damn-near-perfect game against Georgetown in the 1985 NCAA championship game?
Army defeats Notre Dame. Unlikely? Absolutely. Impossible? Well, it is only one game.